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Remembering the Holocaust can help prevent genocide

Young people are beginning to forget the horrific event and not understand its overpowering significance
June 18, 2019
By Monique Polak

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” These famous words, attributed to philosopher George Santayana, makes recent news that one in five Canadian youths do not know about the Holocaust especially disturbing.

The survey, sponsored by the Azrieli Foundation and released in time for this year’s International Holocaust Day – the day marking the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, the most notorious of the Nazi death camps – revealed that 20 per cent of Canadian youths either have not heard of the Holocaust or are not sure what the word Holocaust means.

A New York Times report on a similar survey in the United States at about the same time showed 31 per cent of Americans, and 41 per cent of millennials (aged 18-34), believe only 2 million or fewer Jews were killed in the Holocaust; the actual number is three times that. The Times reported that 41 per cent of Americans, and 66 per cent of millennials, cannot say what Auschwitz was. And slightly more than half of Americans wrongly think Hitler came to power through force, the survey suggested.

Some 40,000 survivors of the Holocaust settled in Canada, many in Montreal. Most have since died; those who remain are elderly. Today’s youngsters are the last generation who may have the chance to meet Holocaust survivors. If, as many believe, Santayana was right, the need for Holocaust education has never been more urgent.

For many years, Concordia has been at the forefront of Holocaust studies in Canada. The university has offered courses related to the Holocaust and other genocides since the 1980s, but also now brings together academics and members of the community to work to preserve the memory of the Holocaust – and pass on its lessons.

Survey doesn’t surprise

Here’s one example. In the spring of 2019, Ira Robinson, director of Concordia’s Institute for Canadian Jewish Studies and professor of Judaic Studies in the Department of Religions and Cultures, visited a class of Grade 5 and 6 students at Gerald McShane Elementary School in Montreal North. His subject was the Holocaust and he drew on examples to which his young audience could relate. Robinson compared what happened during the Holocaust to bullying. “Imagine,” he told the class, “if someone in your school was being bullied, and there was no one to stop them, and everyone thought it was OK.”

WATCH: Ira Robinson, director of Concordia’s Institute for Canadian Jewish Studies and professor of Judaic Studies in the Department of Religions and Cultures, visits a class of grade 5 and 6 students at Gerald McShane Elementary School in Montreal North.


It was Krystina Gruppuso’s idea to invite Robinson to the school. A student in Concordia’s Department of Education, Gruppuso was completing her student-teacher stint at Gerald McShane. “I warned the students that the Holocaust was a very heavy topic, but that we need to talk about it,” Gruppuso says.

Robinson is not surprised by the results of the Azrieli Foundation study. “The primary and secondary school curricula in Canada and elsewhere don’t say very much about the Second World War and don’t give enough time for much contextualisation of what was going on. Also, the events are fading into the past,” he says.

Robinson grew up in Massachusetts. “I kind of knew people who were Holocaust survivors,” he recalls. “In the ’50s and ’60s, there were many people who didn’t quite know how to deal with either the fact of the Holocaust or the survivors,” he adds, pointing out that Raul Hilberg, a pre-eminent scholar of the Holocaust, struggled to find a publisher for his seminal work, The Destruction of the European Jews.

Robinson was deeply affected when, as a teen, he read the late Elie Wiesel’s memoir Night. Later in life, Robinson was also influenced by his parentsin- law, both Holocaust survivors. His mother-in-law had been imprisoned at Auschwitz; his father-in-law was interned in a Hungarian forced-labour camp.

Robinson believes a variety of methods is needed to raise young people’s awareness about the Holocaust. “No one approach will be the magic bullet,” he says. For Robinson, these approaches include publication, the development of school curricula, and teaching teachers. “You can publish the best curriculum in the world, but if the teachers aren’t oriented toward it, it will be worse than useless,” he says.

Robinson’s most recent book, A History of Antisemitism in Canada (Wilfrid Laurier University Press) includes a chapter on Holocaust denial, another phenomenon which highlights the need for Holocaust education.

Concordia’s Institute for Canadian Jewish Studies has published a series of autobiographies of Canadian Holocaust survivors — available on the Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies (MIGS) website — and hosts public lectures. In April 2019, Sharon Delmendo, a professor at St. John Fisher College in Rochester, N.Y., visited Concordia to speak about a little-known chapter of the Holocaust: the rescue of 1,300 European Jews by Manuel Quezon, who was president of the Philippines.

In a course Robinson teaches about modern Judaism, he includes lectures about the Holocaust and its effect. His students – about 20 per cent of whom Robinson estimates are Muslim – represent a cross-section of Concordia. “And Concordia is a cross-section of the whole world,” he says. “Some of my students have heard all kinds of wild things about Jews, Jewish history and the Holocaust. But I see a curiosity. They want to know and understand.”

MIGS is a Concordia-based think tank with members from both the university and the community. Its best-known non-academic member is retired general Roméo Dallaire, who led the UN peacekeeping mission during the Rwandan genocide 25 years ago.

MIGS was founded in 1986 by Concordia professors Frank Chalk and Kurt Jonassohn, both of whom had family who perished during the Holocaust. Together, the pair introduced a course in 1986 called “History and Sociology of Genocide.” In 1990, at the request of students, Chalk developed another course called “The History of the Holocaust.” Jonassohn died in 2011, but Chalk continues to teach both courses. Since 1986, he has taught more than 2,000 students about the Holocaust.

The largest genocide

MIGS conducts research about conditions that lead to genocide and crimes against humanity and advocates to prevent future mass atrocities. The institute also trains government and United Nations officials about the prevention of mass atrocities and organizes conferences and workshops, such as a recent panel discussion about anti-Semitism online.

Though MIGS works to draw attention to and fight every form of genocide, the memory of the Holocaust guides the institute.

“The largest genocide we’ve seen is the Holocaust. It’s an example of how humanity can turn to absolute barbarism, destroy millions of lives and destabilize the planet,” says MIGS executive director Kyle Matthews.

Child survivors of Auschwitz Child survivors of Auschwitz, wearing adult-size prisoner jackets, stand behind a barbed wire fence.

Like other members of the think tank, Matthews is alarmed by the rise of anti-Semitism, pointing not only to recent events in Europe, but also to the 2018 attack on a Pittsburgh synagogue. Anti-Semitism is coming both from the far left and far right,” Matthews warns.

Matthews believes Canadian children need to learn not only about the Holocaust and genocide, but also about the consequences of discrimination. Together with members of the Foundation for Genocide Education, MIGS representatives have met with Quebec’s Minister of Education to lobby for the inclusion in the curriculum of more information about the Holocaust and genocide prevention.

Sometimes, Matthews says, he needs a break from following world news. “But I’m committed to doing whatever I can to work toward the betterment of humanity. Hope is all we have. If we don’t hold on to hope, we lose our will to change the arc of history.”

For Csaba Nikolenyi, political science professor and director of Concordia’s Azrieli Institute of Israel Studies, the greatest sign of hope in a post-Holocaust world is the existence of the State of Israel. The Azrieli Institute of Israel Studies was created by the Azrieli Foundation, which has offices in Montreal and Toronto. The foundation publishes a series of memoirs of Holocaust survivors, first-hand testimony that has become an important primary resource for Holocaust researchers. The foundation also endowed the Azrieli collection at Concordia’s Webster Library, one of the largest collections in North America of material related to the Holocaust.

Housed in the Samuel Bronfman Building, the Azrieli Institute also operates a reading room that includes the 81 memoirs published to date in the Azrieli series. The institute also organizes special events such as the 2014 presentation, co-sponsored by the Azrieli Foundation and MIGS, by Francesco Lotoro, an Italian professor and concert pianist who reconstructed music written by prisoners in the concentration camps. “The fact that music was created in the camps is testimony to the resilience of the human spirit in the darkest times,” says Nikolenyi.

Not a refugee camp

Growing up in communist Hungary, Nikolenyi knew little about the Holocaust. “It was not part of the official curriculum, though it is now,” he explains. Nikolenyi believes Holocaust education must include the study of Israel. He points to the common misconception that Israel began with the Holocaust. “If you say that to an Israeli, it raises a sensitive topic. Israel didn’t begin as a kind of refugee camp. The creation of Israel is rooted in the achievements of the Zionist movement which officially started in 1897, and even that builds on the ancient Jewish connection with the land of Israel,” Nikolenyi says.

This summer, Nikolenyi will again take 13 Concordia students to Israel for a month-long seminar. The group will visit Yad Vashem, the country’s Holocaust memorial, as well as a kibbutz established by Holocaust survivors in the Negev, a region where the salty soil made farming difficult.

The kibbutznim persevered, and the kibbutz became a centre for the development of drip irrigation technology, now used all over the world. “For the students to witness the success of Israel is to see the ultimate triumph against Hitler. He did not wipe out the Jews,” Nikolenyi says.

Though the numbers are shocking and vital to know – 6 million Jews, gypsies and LGBTQ people perished during the Holocaust, along with more than 5 million Soviets – it is always the individual stories that resonate most. This, combined with the fact Holocaust survivors are dying off, makes the work of Concordia’s Centre for Oral History and Digital Storytelling so valuable.

Initiated by history professor Steven High in 2006, COHDS’s work includes the Montreal Life Stories Project, which focused on the stories of individuals displaced by mass violence and genocide. The project brought together various groups, including one called the Holocaust and Other Persecutions Against Jews Working Group. Composed of both academics and community members, this group collected stories from Holocaust survivors as well as their children.

“As we know, there’s not just one story about what happened during the Holocaust. People who were children, women, people from different countries had very different experiences during the Holocaust,” says Cynthia Hammond, who teaches art history and is co-director of COHDS.

COHDS has shared its resources with organizations including the Montreal Holocaust Museum, the Museum of Jewish Montreal and the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21. The digital interviews collected through the Montreal Life Stories Project can be consulted at COHDS, located on the 10th floor of the J. W. McConnell Building. “The most consulted of these materials have to do with the Holocaust. Since 2017, the centre has seen an increase in requests for access to our archived interviews about the Holocaust. I’m glad researchers are using the collection. That’s what it’s there for,” Hammond says.

Several members of the Holocaust working group have gone on to do related research and creative projects. A 2018 tour called Survivors on the Main: A Historical Walk introduced participants to a Montreal neighbourhood where many child refugees from the Holocaust settled – and to two child survivors of the Holocaust. Hammond, who took part in the walk, found it deeply moving.

Meeting their future wives

“These two very elderly men were still full of life and believed in the importance of sharing their experience,” she says. “They also wanted us to know about their life as Montrealers – not only as survivors. For example, they spoke about meeting their future wives at dances organized by members of the local community who had welcomed them.”

Hammond believes while the study of history aims to increase our understanding of the past, oral history has a loftier goal. “Oral history is often undertaken with the goal of a better future – a more just, egalitarian and humane society. If you decide to make your story public, it’s so that someone will be moved to see the world differently and take action,” she says.

It has been nearly 75 years since the Holocaust ended. The work that has been done and continues to be done at Concordia regarding the Holocaust is another hopeful sign. Every lesson connected to the Holocaust shares a moral imperative – that its history and stories must be passed down to future generations

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